French Revolution

What is the French Revolution?

The French Revolution refers to a set of events that took place between May 5, 1789 and November 9, 1799 in France and which led to the fall of the absolutist regime, better known as the Ancien Régime.

He put an end to French absolutism and feudal privileges; favored the political ascent of the bourgeoisie, proclaimed the Rights of Man; it laid the foundations of republicanism, modern democracy and popular sovereignty, and inspired the libertarian movements of the 19th century. All this under the slogan “freedom, equality and fraternity”.

It started after a meeting of the states general of the kingdom to resolve the economic crisis in France. But the struggle to transform the Old Regime into a constitutional monarchy and, soon after, to establish a republic, soon broke out.

The French Revolution is considered the starting point of the contemporary era with the first industrial revolution. Some researchers call this process “the double revolution”.

Causes of the French Revolution

  • Spread of Enlightenment ideas. Among the most influential ideas was liberalism, which proposed the separation of powers, equality before the law, and individual liberty.
  • Growing socio-economic inequalities. Marked by declining production and consumption, scarcity, inflation and unemployment.
  • Unequal tax burden. The nobility and the clergy enjoyed privileges which exempted them from taxes. Consequently, the tax burden fell mainly on the bourgeoisie and the peasants.
  • Acceleration of population growth. Between the years 1700 and 1789, the population increased by 44%, which was a challenge in the midst of an economic crisis.
  • Inability of the State to cover the public debt. This was a consequence of the mismanagement of the absolutist monarchy and its extremely high level of expenditure. Among them, the participation of France in the financing of the war of independence of the United States.
  • political crisis. While enlightened depotism grew in Europe, which modernized societies and regimes, the King of France resisted state reform and maintained absolutism. There is then a dispute over political representation.

Summary of the French Revolution

Under the reign of Louis XVI, France went through a deep economic and political crisis. Without resources to cover the public debt, the monarch summoned the States General of France, meeting of various representative bodies of the kingdom, which met only in case of national emergency. The Estates General were composed of three estates or domains:

  • First estate or nobility (with 270 representatives).
  • Second Estate or the Clergy (with 291 representatives).
  • Third State or the people (with 578 representatives of the cities, known as bourgeois).
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From this moment will begin in the history of France a revolutionary turning point which will culminate only in 1799.

Stages of the French Revolution

The French Revolution lasted ten years, which were very tumultuous. Therefore, to understand it, it is better to separate each of its stages.

1789: the Estates General

French Revolution

Auguste Couder: Inauguration of the States General of France on May 5, 1789oil on canvas, 400 x 715 cm, National Museum of the Palace and Trianons, Versailles.

The sessions of the Estates General began on May 5, 1789. The Third Estate proposed limiting royal power and reforming the monarchy, while the opinions of the First and Second Estates were divided. The Third Estate demanded that all members vote individually and not by succession, as was the custom. Seeing themselves in the minority, the Conservatives refused.

The parish priest Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès suggested that the lower clergy and the minor nobility should disregard the domains and join the Third Estate, which they considered to be representative of the nation. 149 monks and two nobles accepted. Then the Third Estate declared the National Assemblywhose first session took place on June 17, 1789.

King Louis XVI wanted to dissolve the Estates General, but the Assembly was able to meet in another room in the Palace of Versailles, called the ball games room. There, the members of the assembly promised not to separate until they drafted a constitution and proclaimed the Constituent Assembly. This episode was known as Ball game oath.

1789-1791: the storming of the Bastille and the Constituent Assembly

French Revolution

Charles Thevenin: Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 17891793, oil on canvas, 41 x 58.5 cm, Carnavalet Museum, Paris.

Louis XVI sends his soldiers against the assembly and dismisses the popular minister Jacques Necker. The measure only encouraged Capture of the Bastille by the city on July 14, 1789, action which freed the prisoners of this fortress. This event represents both the emergence of the little people of Paris as actors in the revolution and their first triumph.

The king had to give in and later the Constituent Assembly proclaimed the Human and civic rights on August 26, 1789. But the crisis continued, and on October 5 and 6 of that year the people rose up and carried out the march to versailles, in which they demanded food and social reforms. The monarchs were moved to the Tuileries Palace in Paris, where they remained in custody.

On September 3, 1791, the first Constitution of France was approved. It establishes a constitutional monarchy and the separation of powers (judicial, executive and legislative). Confiscation of clergy and nobility property was also approved, hereditary nobility was abolished, and feudal privileges were eliminated.

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1791-1792: the Legislative Assembly

French Revolution

Thomas Falcon Marshall: The arrest of Louis XVI and his family at the passport officer’s house in Varennes in June 17911854, oil on canvas, 105 x 142.5 cm.

Having fulfilled its mission, the Constituent Assembly was dissolved on September 30, 1791 and the new Legislative Assembly began on October 1, 1791. This brought together different political tendencies, organized into clubs or thought societies (ancestor of political parties). Among the progressives, the following stood out:

  • Gironde or Girondins club: favorable to the constitutional monarchy and to the suffrage censitaire, that is to say only for people with certain characteristics. The leadership of Jacques Pierre Brissot stood out.
  • Club des Jacobins or Club des Amis de la Constitution: favorable to the republic. Maximilien Robespierre’s leadership stands out.
  • Cordeliers or Franciscan Club: favorable to the republic and universal male suffrage, under the leadership of Jean-Paul Marat and Georges-Jacques Danton.

The monarchs tried to flee at the call Escape from Varennesbetween 20 and 21 June 1791. When they were discovered, their authority declined even further and the republican factions in the assembly became radicalized, fearing an absolutist reaction.

in the call Day of August 10, 1792 an insurrection breaks out, this time at the Tuileries Palace. The insurrection caused the suspension of the constitutional functions of the monarch and his arrest, and prompted elections for a new parliament, called national convention.

1792-1795: the National Convention and the Reign of Terror

French Revolution

Execution of Louis XVI on January 21, 1793. Color engraving.

Austria and Prussia try to contain the French Revolution by force. For this, they formed a coalition. Eventually, they had the support of the monarchies of Russia, Britain and Spain, among others.

The crisis continued, but eventually the new Constitution of 1793. With this constitution was officially born the First Republic.

The National Convention became more radical during the war. Between April 5 and 6, 1793, the public safety committee under the direction of Robespierre, who received full powers for the defense of the republic.

But the Committee launched a violent crackdown, beginning the so-called Reign of Terror or Terror. The Reign of Terror had two moments: the best known was the red terrorunder the leadership of the Jacobins, and white terrorpromoted by an altijacobina coalition.

The Red Terror took place between 1739 and 1794. The Jacobins executed Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette of Austria; dissidents are persecuted and more than 10,000 people suspected of “treason” are guillotined, including the Girondins. This provoked the reaction of the anti-Jacobins, who formed a coalition and took white as their symbol.

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The anti-Jacobins arrested Robespierre and guillotined him in July 1794. The next day, they formed the Thermidorian Conventionbetter known as Thermidor reaction. Then begins another stage of persecution and state terrorism, this time against the Jacobins. The White Terror lasted from July 1794 to November 1795.

1795-1799: the Directory and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte

French RevolutionFrancois Bouchot: General Bonaparte and the Council of Five Hundred, at Saint-Cloud. November 10, 17991840, oil on canvas, 401 × 421 cm, Palace of Versailles.

In 1795, a new Constitution was approved, which established the census vote and the reform of the executive power. This would become composed of five members and would be called the phone book. But throughout his administration, there were various popular uprisings.

The constant instability caused the coming to power of Napoleon Bonaparte on November 9, 1799, by the coup d’etat known as 18 brumaire. This period was called the Consulate and marked the end of the French Revolution and the advent of a new stage for the Gallic country.

See also:

  • Absolutism
  • Liberalism
  • Lights or Lights
  • Bourgeoisie

Consequences of the French Revolution

French Revolution

Eugène Delacroix : Liberty Leading the People or July 281831, oil on canvas, 260 x 325 cm, Louvre Museum, Paris. Note the Phrygian cap on the personification of Liberty and the French Republic.

Political and ideological consequences

  • End of the Old Regime.
  • Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.
  • Creation of the French Republic and separation of public powers.
  • Replacement of social classes by the notion of citizenship.
  • Strengthening of the bourgeoisie as the ruling class.
  • Separation of State and Church.
  • Transformation of the judicial system, now guided by the law.
  • Awakening of a wave of revolutionary agitation in Europe and America.
  • New military confrontations for the restoration of the Old Regime.
  • The rise to power of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Economic consequences

  • Growth in the number of small owners.
  • Abolition of tax privileges based on inheritance criteria.

Military consequences

  • Formation of the first national army in Europe.
  • Introduction of compulsory recruitment.

Socio-cultural consequences

  • Educational reform and establishment of free and compulsory education.
  • Appearance of modern public museums and exhibition of confiscated art collections.
  • Impulse of neoclassical art, attached to revolutionary values.
  • Establishment of national symbols:
    • Appointment of the Marseillaise as the national anthem.
    • Personification of France in Marianne, a woman wearing a Phrygian cap.


Gombrich, Ernst: brief history of the world. Barcelona: Peninsula Editions, 2007.
Hobsbaum, Eric: The bourgeois revolutions 1789-1848. Barcelona: Review, 1964.
Rhenan Segura, Jorge: Thinking Societies and the French Revolution. Contribution to the study of philosophical ideas between 1750-1800. Journal of Philosophy of the University of Costa Rica. . 66, 1989.